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Jan 22 2013

NY Times Debate: Is Atheism A Religion?

The New York Times is hosting a bit of a debate, with views from folks like Penn Jillette and Jason Torpy, as well as frustratingly misguided writers who prefer unsolved religious mystery.

It’s worth the read, if only to reinforce how good the quality of some of the thinking and writing is here at FtB. So go, comment at the Times, and tell them Cuttlefish sent you.

16 comments

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  1. 1
    Gregory in Seattle

    I think it depends on one’s position. “Weak” atheism (lack of belief) is a religion only in the sense that not collecting stamps is a hobby. “Strong” atheism (belief in lack) is basically a theological position on the non-existence of God, in the same way that a Christian would hold a theological position on the non-existence of Zeus, and I think that can be considered a religious position.

    The problem is that without a mutually agreeable definition of “atheism,” any such discussion is pointless.

  2. 2
    Cuttlefish

    I’m gonna disagree with you, G i S. Strong vs weak atheism is an attempt to frame atheism in religious terms, which is why it seems to paint part of atheism as a religion, but it does so by pounding a square peg into a round hole.

    If we wanted to look at “strong atheism”, the only way to do this appropriately would be to do it separately for each god. To use the recent “all gods are the same, it doesn’t matter what name you give” argument is to ignore history and to beg half the question before you begin. A christian does *not* believe in Athena, and will even fight against other names for (ostensibly) the same Abrahamic god (try getting “in Allah we trust” on US coins). A christian is a strong atheist with respect to Athena, by strict definition of “strong atheist”, or with respect to Odin, or Thor, or Ra, or thousands of others. Most will claim not to believe in Allah, despite shared history.

    Indeed, the religious faithful (well, those whose religions are incompatible with others) are, it seems to me, far more likely than atheists are to be “strong atheists” of the other gods. After all, they can “know” that a god they have never even considered does not exist, because they “know” their god does exist and is the only one.

    When “strong believers” are also “strong atheists” (just with respect to different gods), you know there is something wrong with your naming system. Someone is not just a believer–they are a believer in a particular faith. (My sister is a believer; that does not mean that she believes in all possible gods.) A non-believer (none of the above) may be “strong atheist” with regard to any number of them, but that is not what defines disbelief–this “strong disbelief” is shared with any number of believers (of other faiths).

    tl;dr–”strong” and “weak” are adequate in terms of describing belief, but fail utterly when applied to disbelief.

  3. 3
    Corvus illustris

    G in S #1: The problem is that without a mutually agreeable definition of “atheism,” any such discussion is pointless.

    Not only of “atheism” but also of “religion.” One may affirm or deny the existence of one or more deities on the basis of some a priori philosophical principle without the statement’s rising (or sinking) to the level of a religion. Anything that most people would recognize as a religion also has practices for praying to, praising or propitiating such entities, but these are not to be found among agnostics or atheists. What of someone like Lucretius, who writes a beautiful hymn to Venus but then more-or-less says “run along to Olympus and play, dear, you’re just another swirl of (admittedly higher-grade) atoms”? Is that “religion”?

    The NYT smarming about religion is even worse than the NPR.

  4. 4
    Corvus illustris

    DC #3: The distinctions that you make also have to be made. The overarching problem is really: that to have even a superficial discussion of “atheism /= religion “questions requires a carefully constructed set of definitions. One can then have a conversation so nicely / restricted to “what precisely” / and “if” and “perhaps” and “but”. But that doesn’t fit the space in the newspaper.

    (Apologies to T. S.)

  5. 5
    Corvus illustris

    Argh! It’s #2, not #3 in #4. I must learn these new Indian number things sometime.

  6. 6
    Gregory in Seattle

    @Cuttlefish #2 – It has always been my understanding that the distinction between “strong” and “weak” atheism was first made by atheists to describe the continuum of non-belief. I get the impression that you are ascribing this distinction to theists.

    Anway, Corvus is right: without defining terms, we cannot have a meaningful discussion. (Yes, I took rhetoric in college and was in the debate club, why do you ask?) Otherwise, debate ends with the famous quote by Stephen Roberts:

    I contend that we are both atheists. I just believe in one fewer god than you do. When you understand why you dismiss all the other possible gods, you will understand why I dismiss yours.

  7. 7
    Gregory in Seattle

    While verifying that I got the Roberts quote right, I found this gem at Yahoo Answers. Specifically:

    But atheism is still not a religion for the same reason that “theism”, “monotheism”, “polytheism” and “deism” are not religions. These are all terms that ONLY describe where one stands on the issue of deity. You need a lot more than that (ritual, philosophy, dogma, etc.) to define a religion in full.

    That looks like a keeper, to me. It also helps to explain how non-theist religions like Buddhism are religions despite being non-theist.

  8. 8
    Cuttlefish

    G in S #6–

    I actually have no idea who first came up with the distinction; where I have seen it used was mostly by theists in the employ of “atheism is a religion too” arguments. But it could easily have been atheists. Whoever came up with it, I disagree with them.

    (I also disagree with the Roberts quote–there are too many different reasons to believe, and too many different reasons to reject. If a particular person rejects Baal because Jehovah demands it, they do not dismiss Baal for the same reasons I do. On the other hand, we very probably dismiss the vast majority of gods for the same reasons–a passive dismissal, the same sort that I am unaware of the nicknames of billions of people on the Asian continent. I don’t believe in any of the gods I have not heard of.)

  9. 9
    Corvus illustris

    G in S #6: Yes, I took rhetoric in college and was in the debate club, why do you ask?

    It never occurred to me to ask because I spent my (adult) working life teaching mathematics in college and we’re all talking about the kind of analysis that mathematicians routinely do: examine what you’re assuming, what you are talking about, and whether you’ve given a valid deduction of your purported conclusions. The trouble with popular-media discussions of questions like the NYT’s is that they are all too full of rhetoric and debaters’ tricks (no offense meant).

    … non-theist religions like Buddhism are religions despite being non-theist.

    We are all tiptoeing though a conceptual minefield here, just as with the purported distinction between strong and weak atheism.

  10. 10
    Fred Salvador, Onion Jumbler

    Other debates in this series:
    Is a fish an egg?
    Is a car Jesus?
    Is Christianity communism?
    Are logical fallacies inevitable in mass media debates?

  11. 11
    haitied

    Heh. If Atheism were a religion we would have the same ease of access to charity tax status, privilege in public discourse, and probably some degree of respect that theists get for no good reason.

  12. 12
    Corvus illustris

    haitied #10: If Atheism were a religion we would have the same ease of access to charity tax status, privilege in public discourse, and probably some degree of respect that theists get for no good reason.

    This is an argument for the notion that in the context of law and public policy, one might not want to object to having atheism/agnosticism construed as a religion. (It has been a struggle to achieve as much parity with idiotic bible-thumping as now exists.) E.g., the “free exercise” clause of the US first constitutional amendment is then applicable, which is not obvious from literal consideration of the language otherwise.

    FS #9: Are logical fallacies inevitable in mass media debates?

    Neither more nor less than ambiguity and obfuscation. “Debates” grants too much dignity to these things.

  13. 13
    Aaroninaustralia

    I find that the notion that strong atheism is a ‘religion’ to be misguided because it’s based on the lack of definitions.
    Consider “There is no God” as a premise. First, what is a “God”? I define this as a title, in the same way “King” is a title. It is bestowed on a person (or in the case of the title, “God”, a being) by an audience. An individual cannot legitimately bestow such a title upon themselves. A “God” must therefore be a title bestowed on a supernatural being by its followers, in the same way a “King” is a title bestowed on a natural person by his followers.
    A “being” can be considered to be a discrete entity with agency. That is, the being must have a will and ability to make its will happen in the material world. A being with agency that cannot make a difference in our universe is irrelevant; such a being cannot be a “God” for us.
    Finally, the question is what is meant by “supernatural”. This is a term that is usually vague but I think I have a reasonable working model of it. In essence, “natural” agency follows a pattern of ‘will’, leading to some form of physical action, that results in the achievement of a goal. It is cause and effect where the cause is physical action arising from a thought. Supernaturalism appears to be where the cause and the thought are one in the same: supernaturalism is thought leading to effect with no physical action to make that effect occur.
    Where a supernatural being is considered worthy of “worship” (which is a word based on ‘worth’), then that being is a “God” because it is deemed so by its followers.
    To illustrate, imagine that the Abrahamic religion were true for a moment. We would have supernatural beings including Yahweh, Jesus, Satan, Archangels, Angels, Demons, and witches. Satan appears to have basically as much agency as Yahweh, so could be labeled a “God”. However, the audience does not accept this on the basis of Satan’s deemed lack of worth. Archangels and angels could be considered Gods as they have worth, and are even worshipped. However, due to Yahweh demanding to be the sole one with the “God” title, these deities are not labeled as “Gods” by the followers of the religion. And finally, humans showing supernatural abilities are deemed not to be supernatural beings but “beings dabbling in the supernatural” and are thus labeled illegitimate, despite there being no real reason to do so. This demonstrates how “God” is a title, not an inherent state of being.
    With these definitions in mind, a God must therefore be a supernatural being capable of effecting goals that is worthy of being labeled a “God” by its followers. Is it possible to say that “No Gods exist?” Well basically, yes. Because a God must be a known supernatural being that is labeled as a God. There may be something like a supernatural being around, but unless it is known to us and is deemed worthy of worship, then it cannot be deemed a God: at most we could say “There may potentially be supernatural beings, and one may potentially be considered a God in the future”. Of course, such a statement is as meaningless as “There might be a King of the United States and we might find him one day, therefore it’s impossible to say he does not exist”. Thus, we need only consider the beings posited to exist by religions. And when we do, we find these beings do not exist.
    Thus yes, it’s possible to examine God claims and find “There is no God here”. Therefore, unless and until a supernatural being makes its abilities known and available for examination, then there is no justification for concluding that such a being may exist, let alone may be worthy of a God title. To do so is to say that there may be a King of the USA in the future and therefore claims to the contrary are treason in some potential future scenario. Nor does the potential existence of such a being provide licence to religions to suggest that such being are providing their customers with preferential treatment in exchange for ritual service as provided by those religions.

  14. 14
    BecomingJulie

    If atheism is a religion, then silence is a musical genre and bare feet are a kind of shoe.

  15. 15
    Corvus illustris

    Re BecomingJulie‘s #14 on silence as a musical genre, we have from Wikipedia’s entry on John Cage:

    Cage is perhaps best known for his 1952 composition 4′33″, which is performed in the absence of deliberate sound; musicians who present the work do nothing aside from being present for the duration specified by the title. The content of the composition is not “four minutes and 33 seconds of silence,” as is sometimes assumed, but rather the sounds of the environment heard by the audience during performance.

    Reductio ad absurdum is harder than it looks when things are already absurd. Not the case with the shoes, though.

  16. 16
    bradleybetts

    Miskatonic MinneapolisNYT Pick..

    I basically rejected religion long ago, at least as a matter of personal faith. I will still respect the religious members of my family and even entertain the rituals of my childhood involving holidays etc., but I find no special comfort, meaning or transcendence in them. My main reason for disillusionment was precisely the LACK of mystery in religion–its poverty of the imagination, uninspired answers to amazingly complex questions, fundamental lack of curiosity and ridiculous (even offensive) hierarchies. Most religions attempt to take the huge, intricate, beautiful and sometimes horrifying universe we live in and convert it into a simplistic and often hypocritical instruction manual for human beings. It is like taking the awesome immensity of the Pacific Ocean, emptying it of almost everything that gives it energy and life, reducing it to the grandeur of a suburban swimming pool. Many people prefer to swim in a pool. It is convenient. It feels safe. It is easy to keep out things you don’t like. I understand the appeal, but I have always felt drawn to the ocean.

    First comment I saw in the thread and… damn. *applause*

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